Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Stagnation - Part Six
It was the afternoon following Ayame's conversation with Gary at the Uni field. The Bori had been too humiliated over admitting so much about himself and getting caught by a stranger to really continue the conversation after Xee interrupted it, which was a shame. The Kougra couldn't help but be worried about the squire. Everything she'd seen of him seemed to indicate that he placed a phenomenal amount of importance on other people, as he often went out of his way to please others or put himself in harms way for someone else's sake. But she couldn't help wondering what sort of impact this sort of persistent self-denial would have on someone. Certainly at the very least Gary was extremely stressed.
Granted, to some extent all nobles, or those in the noble caste like a knight, had to be mindful of their reputation. How one was perceived could make the difference between immense diplomatic power and being practically nonexistent in this cutthroat political world. But one also had to exert their own presence if they expected anyone to take them seriously, otherwise they'd come across as a sycophant.
At this, though, Ayame found herself chuckling softly. She was hardly in a position to be criticizing anyone for not asserting themselves. Her family had been in charge of the Abyssal Acres holdings for how long, and only just now was a representative coming to complain to the king directly about the condition of the fief? And she'd likely not have done it if Valrigard hadn't suggested it first.
Ayame walked into the meeting room, but no one else had arrived yet except for Valrigard. He waved to her when she walked in, and with a smile the Kougra waved back.
"Did something happen yesterday?" he asked as she sat down. "Garrett wasn't at dinner last night and seemed a bit withdrawn this morning- more so than usual, I mean. He's always rather quiet."
"Oh, well..." the Kougra hesitated. What should she say? Valrigard was the primary source of Gary's distress, and if anyone could dispel the squire's fears it would be his master. After a moment of silence, she coughed.
"My Lord, if I may ask... what happens to a squire if they never get a knight master? Or if their knight master repudiates them?"
Valrigard looked down at her with surprise, but after a few seconds a look of understanding came into his eyes. "Well, that depends on the individual. Some get disheartened after a year or two and quit, usually going on to get a job with the local militia or the city guard if they're commoners, or going back to their parent's holding if they're nobles. If they don't give up, after the age of twenty-three they are thrown out of the training school to empty a bunk for someone else, since otherwise they're just a drain on the military budget that isn't paying back. Unless they decide at that point to pursue another career path- and most don't- these individuals become what we call 'professional squires.'"
The Draik leaned forward over the table, resting his chin on his elbows. "A professional squire acts as in much the same capacity as a normal squire, but minus the training aspects. They are assigned to a military commander or to an entire squad, and they see to the care of the mounts and equipment. They also run messages, carry banners, serve at banquets, and so forth. Essentially they do all the menial jobs around the camp to free up the soldiers for other things.
"Granted," Valrigard added, "professional squires can come out of the ranks of those who actually have masters, if the individual decides after a few years with an active knight they don't want to be a warrior after all. And there's no shame in that- this isn't a job you should do if you haven't the heart for it. Someone had to do the job the squires do, and if there is a person who is willing to spend all of their time doing those tasks without taking time out to train or plan strategies, it is one less thing for the soldiers to have to juggle. I've known professional squires who love their jobs, and wouldn't trade them for anything else."
Ayame digested this for a bit in silence, drumming her fingers on the table. Then she looked up at Valrigard again, lifting an eyebrow. "I have a feeling there's a 'but' attached to this. What is it?"
The knight sighed. "While there is no shame in the job, for someone who spent their whole life aspiring to be a knight, to fight on the frontlines and defend his or her people, it's like a clipping a wild bird's wings. It isn't a path they chose, it's one that was forced upon them after they gave up thirteen years of their life working towards something else. In most cases if a squire doesn't get a knight master it's because for some reason they were not seen as being suited towards knighthood, and the man-at-arms was unable to discourage them sufficiently during their page training. So instead the page's training master warns potential masters off as a way to get the message through."
Ayame's tail flicked. "Gary said that the reason he never got a knight master was because he was a commoner- that he didn't have the political clout to be worth choosing."
"That would make sense," Valrigard said somberly. "He's sufficiently skilled and tenacious enough that there's no reason he should have been deliberately held back from getting a knight master. He isn't a genius in the arts of war by anyone's definition, but if we waited on geniuses we'd never have enough knights to go around. Although it does beg the question of where his sponsor vanished to. Usually a common born page has to be sponsored by someone who's already a knight, and when the time comes their sponsor becomes their master. I'll have to ask Garrett about it, I suppose- whoever it was should probably be taken to task for it at some point."
The Draik coughed. "I suppose this topic is related to his melancholy?"
"In a roundabout way," she said. "He... he seems to have convinced himself that unless he is the model of obedience and efficiency, you'll renege on your decision to take him on as your squire. When I suggested he address me without the 'my lady' honorific, he became-" she groped for the right phrasing, "a touch overwrought."
"Ah." The duke winced. "I probably should have foreseen that. Certainly it explains his reticence. I assumed he was just a shy or introspective sort. I'll have a word with him this evening. In the meantime, however, we have other matters to think about."
Ayame looked back at the door of the room. "Where are the king and prince anyway? Shouldn't they be arriving about now?"
The knight shrugged, his expression helpless. "Skarl I can't answer for, but if I know anything about King Talren, it's that he moves at his own pace. Frankly I'm astonished he's been on time every day so far. The entire reason I was at court at all when Sir Graham arrived was because I got stuck far longer than I was supposed to trying to negotiate the Bay's salvage rights on shipwrecks. I was only supposed to stay a month and I've been here close to two."
The Kougra blanched. "I can't stay here two months or more, it's hard enough to keep the accounts of Abyssal Acres in balance when I'm there! And that's without us needing to beggar ourselves to replenish pilfered food stores!"
"By Fyora's Crown, don't tell his majesty that!" the Draik replied. "He'll stall out the negotiations until you have no choice but to return home."
Ayame winced. It made a horrible kind of sense.
The creak of the doors opening forestalled any further conversation with the duke of Pyrfell Bay, as Skarl and Talren strode into the room. The tension between the two was so palpable that Ayame could practically taste it; had they been quarreling? That would certainly explain why both of them were late.
"Erm, is everything alright, your majesty, my prince?" Ayame asked tentatively. Talren opened his mouth to reply, but Skarl beat him to it.
"Things are well enough," the blue Skeith replied with patently false cheer. "Only my dear father seems to have neglected to inform me of my recent demotion in rank. Imagine my surprise when I was stymied in my attempted to research our cause by a mere historian?"
"Your dramatics are unnecessary, Skarl," Talren said with a scowl. "You were not demoted, only reminded of the limitations of your existing position. You are not my heir, and you should not expect to be treated as a king-in-waiting."
The prince snorted. "I am not your heir, but I am your son. I should think you would trust me a little more."
"Erm, King Talren, Prince Skarl, if I may?" Valrigard interrupted. "What are you going on about? I assume it is to do with the current discussion at hand, but..."
Skarl sighed, drumming his fingers on the back of his chair. He was clearly still too keyed up to sit. "Do you remember how I said that there seemed to be near constant rain in Abyssal Acres as far back as I could find in the records? Well I realized that there were no records in the library on how and when Abyssal Acres joined the kingdom in the first place. I had thought to do some research into the archives of the royal historian. Those records are sealed from the public, but members of the court are usually permitted access to all but a very few, which only the royal family may see. Or rather, only members of the royal family in waiting to become king. Younger sons apparently do not count."
It took Ayame several moments to digest what the prince was getting at, around his foul temper at being cheated a look at the records. "Wait, why would the record of Abyssal Acres admission to the kingdom be sealed?" she asked sharply. A thought occurred to her, and she looked down at her hands. "Sire, if it's to do with my family, we had no involvement with-"
Talren coughed, his expression uncomfortable. "Lady Ayame, I of course know your family history and the gifts you no doubt wield as a result of your heritage- they too are recorded in the sealed archives. But your line was given stewardship of Abyssal Acres only a few generations ago, so obviously there is no connection there."
Ayame looked up towards the king, meeting his gaze. "Then why? What reason could you possibly have to conceal the circumstances of a fief being added to the kingdom? And does it have anything to do with your reticence in giving my people the support they require?"
The Kougra was a blunt soul by nature, and it had been everything in her to stay polite with her king. However that frankness was getting the better of her, and it was clearly making Talren uncomfortable.
"Lady Ayame, do not jump to conclusions. If you had permitted me the chance to speak before inquiring about my ill temper with my son, you would know that the conversation I had with him has born fruit to your cause. I will grant a relief effort for the coming winter."
The Kougra started. What had prompted this sudden change? The same thought had clearly occurred to Valrigard, because he turned to Skarl with a frown.
"What's the catch?" he demanded of the prince. The blue Skeith scowled.
"He wants us to give over our demands for the improvement of the fief overall. Accept the relief effort, but let go of the issue with changing the law against Abyssal Acres having a militia."
"Sire, have you run mad?" the knight said. "You were the one saying that as things are you'll be sending relief money to the fief endlessly. What if another band of raiders come through? What if, Fyora forbid, the Werelupes come back?"
"Do you really think that a fief which can't afford food can afford to train and outfit a militia?" Talren demanded.
"We can if the rains are stopped," Ayame put in. "We need a powerful, skilled air mage, but I believe it can be done. I told you before I've been researching that- if we send word to Fyora, she could send one of her air faeries to help. The faeries are responsible for keeping balance in Neopia, so a storm that has scantly lifted for centuries is certain to draw their attention!"
"Absolutely not," Talren barked, his expression suddenly panicked. "And I will hear no more on this matter! I have given you what you came for, be content with it!"
Valrigard gritted his teeth, shoving himself out of his chair to lean over the table. "It seems to me that you are trying to buy our silence in this issue. It does raise an interesting question- what would the other fiefs think, to know you neglect Abyssal Acres so? Already his lordship of Drackon Ridge is concerned for the wellbeing of his close neighbor."
"You forget yourself, Duke Valrigard," the king said acidly. "Your words edge dangerously close to treasonous."
"I think it is you who forgets, my king," the Draik replied. "If you alienate your lords, you dig a dangerous pit. Perhaps you will not fall into it yourself, but Hagan or one of his descendants might. If you wrenched your nose out of musty old history texts and considered the future rather than the past, you might just realize that!"
"Silence!" the king bellowed, slamming his hand down on the table. "I have heard enough; my decision is set, and I will hear no more of this matter."
"But your majesty-" the Kougra bleated, putting a hand out to try to shove the irate knight back into his chair.
"You cannot stop your ears forever, Sire," the Draik snarled, paying Ayame no heed. "When your border fiefs start burning down around you, who do you think will be blamed?"
"I said SILENCE!," Talren roared, an oddly wild look in his eyes. "Guards! Escort the Duke and the Lady from our presence."
"Father, you overstep!" Skarl cried, watching in horror as the guards stationed around the room yanked a very affronted looking Valrigard to his feet.
"Overstep?" the king said softly. "No; I merely make an example. If you allow the seeds of dissent to take root, you encourage more to grow. Perhaps now his grace of Pyrfell will remember who is and is not king."
As the guards forced her and Valrigard out at spearpoint, Ayame rather doubted that- the look in the Draik's eyes was absolutely murderous.
* * * * *
Gary dismounted from Ohu's back, his entire body sore from the combat maneuvers they had been practicing. He still hadn't gotten the hang of staying on the Uni when he bucked and thrashed, but at least he'd gotten to where he didn't go flying at the first wild turn.
"I'll have to put in a word with the man-at-arms," Ohu remarked dryly. "Preliminary lessons in combat riding should be a required part of the final-year page regiment."
"Light as some thirteen year old is- are- I can't see that going over well," the Bori replied. "They'd fly even easier than me."
And it wasn't just a lack of experience that had been contributing to his poor performance that day. It was the nagging distraction of a guilty conscience.
The afternoon before, Ayame had sought him out, presumably because she had something important she wanted to discuss. Instead, he'd let a tiny remark get to him, and had turned the conversation into a discussion of his insecurities.
What was worse, he'd let his temper get the better of him, and taken it out on the young Lupe. Granted, the kid had deserved a lecture for his behavior, but Gary had been a bit harsher than he liked...
The Uni was opening his mouth, clearly about to offer a snarky comment in response to Gary's words, when a harsh voice bellowed, "Squire!"
Both of them looked around in surprise to find that Sir Valrigard was swooping across the training field. He fanned his wings, banking hard to stop a few yards away. His expression was cold, and his entire body stiff with tension. Gary was immediately on edge, wondering what he could have possibly done to warrant such fury.
Before Gary even had time to stand attention, the Draik's sword was drawn and arcing towards him. Instinctively Gary pulled up his shield, blocking the blow.
"Lord Valrigard, what is the meaning of this?" Ohu demanded crossly, but the Draik paid him no heed.
"Draw," Valrigard snarled at his squire. Gary obeyed, but as soon as the tip of his sword was clear of the scabbard his master was on him again. The older warrior was much faster and more experienced. It was everything Gary could do to keep deflecting his blows- striking back was out of the question.
The Bori's mind raced, frantically trying to dredge up an explanation for this. Had he done something that might offend his master's honor? What if the young Lupe had complained of him, and Valrigard was embarrassed that his squire had been rude to the court historian's apprentice? Or perhaps it was his outburst with Lady Ayame? She hadn't seemed offended, but there was no telling what Xee might have said to someone about it...
"M-my Lord, what-" he tried to say, but he was interrupted when the Draik managed to dart around his defenses. The Bori felt a lance of pain as sharp metal raked across his shield arm, and he yelped. Only his mail sleeve kept the razor edge from biting into his skin.
He didn't turn the blade... He's fighting with the sharp edge, he's coming at me for real. Dear sweet Fyora, what did I do?
"Val, stop it!" Ohu roared, just as the knight's weapon shot towards the opening provided when Gary's shield slipped. Gary had just enough time to register something rushing towards his helmeted head before a tremendous clang filled his ears and stars exploded in his vision.
He must have fallen, because the next thing he knew he was sprawled on his back in the grass, looking up into two pairs of concerned eyes.
"Your skull must have more cracks than a hatching egg, often as you take blows to it," Ohu remarked dryly, though there was relief in his blue eyes that belied his casual tone. "You alright?"
Gary gave a noncommittal grunt. His ears were still ringing, but the pain in his head didn't seem nearly as bad as when he'd been concussed fighting the bandits in Abyssal Acres. He felt the straps of his helm being undone, and the metal sliding off of his sweat-streaked head. This helped the ringing in his ears some.
"I... I crave your forgiveness, Garrett," Valrigard murmured- it was he who had pulled off Gary's helmet. "That was out of turn, and I very nearly did you grave harm. I shudder to think how badly I might have hurt you if Ohu hadn't startled me into pulling that blow."
Gary's ears flattened, and he tried to sit up. Valrigard's hand slid behind his back, supporting him so that he could get himself upright.
"Sir, shouldn't I be apologizing?" he croaked, his throat paper dry from both exertion and nerves. "I thought you challenged me for somethin' I did, though I admit that I couldn't think of what it was."
"You thought- ah, of course, Ayame mentioned..." the Draik rubbed his face, looking very sheepish. "No, Squire, it is nothing you did. I was in a temper, and well..."
"When his temper gets the better of him, Val becomes a time bomb waiting to explode," Ohu finished, his tail swishing with irritation. "My former partner and I rode with him often enough that I recognized the signs when he came at you, though I didn't want to risk hurting him, you, or myself by getting between when he came at you."
Valrigard's expression was sour. "I needed an outlet, or I knew I would take things out in a dangerous way that would come back to bite us all later. I had only meant to work off my frustrations, but by the time I found you I had stewed myself to boiling and I wasn't really thinking anymore."
Gary looked down at his mail sleeve, his mouth set on a grim line. There was a scratch across the links of the chains where Valrigard's sword had struck. Had he been wearing anything else, that blow could have easily crippled him for weeks. It was hard to be understanding of anger so homicidal when he wasn't even it's proper reciprocant.
"It was his majesty," the Draik continued, when Gary gave no indication he meant to fill the silence. "He decided he was finished with us, and had Lady Ayame and myself escorted from the meeting room when we wouldn't leave. At spearpoint."
Gary looked up sharply, and Ohu took a step back with a snort of surprise. "But... but that's... he wouldn't..."
"He would, and did," Valrigard snarled, his body quivering with rage again. "Never have I know such an indignity. In his wisdom, the king has decreed that he will hear no more on the subject of improving conditions in Abyssal Acres. Apparently Skarl was about to find out something he doesn't want us to know, something to do with the fief's history that's sealed in records only Talren and Hagan are allowed to access."
"What could be so damned secret that he'd alienate one of the most powerful nobles in the kingdom?" Ohu demanded crossly. "I always knew the king was paranoid, but I wouldn't have pegged him for a fool!"
Gary looked down at his hands. Here, plain as day, was the source of tension that Illusen had warned him about. The two warriors clearly had no respect for King Talren- and Gary realized that this shouldn't have surprised him. He'd lived at court all his life, he'd heard the whispers. That Talren was wise, but reclusive, that he didn't pay attention to the kingdom except when obligated to, that he looked at everything with a dispassionate intellectual eye. He'd seen the argument Valrigard got into with Sir Graham over how few soldiers the king permitted to fight the bandits at Abyssal Acres, heard Zerue's flagrant words of insubordination when his friend spoke of Crown Prince Hagan.
Yet none of it had really ever registered. He'd heard it all, but dismissed it.
How could he have missed something so glaringly obvious? Had his pursuit of a knight-master really been so single-minded that he'd dismissed a growing current of malcontent?
Noticing his silence, Valrigard cleared his throat. "Garrett? Are you alright?"
The Bori dragged his mind back into the present. "I'm fine, Master. But... forgive me saying so, but please don't do that to me again. I ain't a practice dummy, and you're a good sight stronger'n me. Next time this purple bruiser might not be onhand to save my sorry hide."
Ohu sniggered, and the Draik looked chagrined. "You are correct, and I apologize again, Squire. Though... you need not be so hesitant in saying what you think. If we are to work together for the next several years, it will work better for both of us if we speak openly. I... have some idea of what you've endured to last this long in your Squiredom, and I promise that I won't repudiate you just because you speak your mind."
"Says the man who just cleaned the kid's clock because someone else is being a pompous jerk," Ohu pointed out blandly. Gary couldn't help but agree with the Uni- it wasn't likely he'd been giving his master the same sort of jibes he traded with Zerue on a regular basis. He'd have to keep a close eye on the Draik's ill temper in the future.
"What about Lady Ayame?" the Bori asked suddenly. "Is she alright?"
The Draik frowned. "I... I am not certain. I was distracted with my own anger, so I didn't see where she went. Back to her rooms, I would imagine."
Gary stood, shakily at first, but he managed to pull himself up with Ohu's saddlehorn until his legs locked. "I think I'll go check on her, if that's alright, m'lord. She don't- doesn't- have your connections in court. She might get over her head in trouble."
Ohu glanced around, the worry in his expression telling Gary that his mount understood the Bori's concern. He too was thinking of Illusen's warning.
To be continued...